Did West Virginia know what it was doing?

Posted on June 20, 2013 by


Yesterday, on Harper’s Ferry’s Facebook page, I saw a comment in response to a post about the following day (today) being the 150th anniversary of the birth of West Virginia. The response was simply… “Traitors!!!”

Obviously, it wasn’t a comment that involved much thought, to say nothing of the evident lack of knowledge when it comes to the actual history. Further, in that the poster of said comment had a Confederate flag as a profile picture, it was a rather odd comment… considering, well… in part, West Virginia’s departure was an act of secession from Virginia… which the Virginia Convention had motioned to do, in breaking from the United States. So, calling West Virginia’s statehood “traitorous” is something along the lines of the “pot calling the kettle black”, but…

Since today is the 150th anniversary of the founding of the state of West Virginia (Happy Birthday!), I figured I’d lay out some thoughts on the matter as it applied to the eastern panhandle. I’m not as well-versed at the whole story as I probably should be, but I find the struggle over Berkeley and Jefferson counties (and, even Frederick County) rather interesting.

I’ll simplify things…

As it was… those who were in the act of making West Virginia a different state offered an opportunity to some of the eastern panhandle counties (and others, as in the case of the Potomac Highlands) a chance to join the party. In that Jefferson and Berkeley were under occupation by Confederate forces at the time of the first offering… the soon to be West Virginia folks made the offer a second time, under improved conditions (when Confederates weren’t there AND when a fair number of potential voters were away… in the Confederate army). In Jefferson County, for example, the referendum came up in May 1863, though, in fact, the voting was only held in only two precincts… Harpers Ferry and Shepherdstown. Three hundred votes were reported in favor of annexation. No voting was held at the other precincts. In November, 1863… Jefferson became a county of West Virginia.

Obviously, the harvest time for the eastern panhandle counties was ideal.

What some folks don’t know, is that the same offer was made to Frederick County, Virginia. Were West Virginia legislators thinking that the timing for Frederick County was equally as ripe, especially under Gen. Robert H. Milroy’s administration?

For some reason, I can’t find a reference (which I could swear I’ve seen before) to the referendum being held in Frederick County, but, the short of it is, Frederick County remained in Virginia. I’d say West Virginia knew conditions were optimum for harvesting Berkeley and Jefferson, but overestimating things for Frederick.

West Virginia even made provisions for Frederick County, in the event that it voted to join the Mountain State.

West Virginia even made provisions for Frederick County, in the event that it voted to join the Mountain State.

Incidentally, well after annexation, birthing pains continued for Jefferson and Berkeley. Beginning with the restart of the publishing of the Virginia Free Press, there was a good deal of chatter (great reading, by the way) over the question of the legality of the action. Legally, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the matter in 1871… though the argument for the return of the eastern panhandle counties to Virginia continues to raise its head from time to time… even as recently as only a couple years ago.

To be sure, this is one fascinating topic, always worth mulling over.

As complicated as it is, I’m delighted to share a few thoughts while wishing West Virginia… a place where I spend as much of my free time as possible (especially in the eastern panhandle)… a very happy 150th!